News stories about executions seem to get smaller and smaller. They're tucked away in sections of the paper that no one reads - a sentence or two reporting that so-and-so, who has been on death row since 1984 for shooting a convenience-store clerk during a botched holdup, exhausted his appeals and was electrocuted last night, or hanged, or given a lethal injection, or asphyxiated in a gas chamber. Maybe another line or two notes that it was the state's ninth execution this year. Unless the circumstances of the crime were spectacular or the convict achieved unusual notoriety, another execution simply isn't news any more.
Nor is it an occasion for political protest, or for religious concern, or even for civic introspection. Recent public-opinion polls tell us that 75 or 80 per cent of Americans heartily approve of capital punishment. In today's law-and-order climate, support for the death penalty is rising steadily in the United States, which finds itself in distinctly unsavory company - the likes of China, Iraq, Korea, Iran, Libya, South Africa, and some of the nations of the former Soviet Union - in still putting people to death for ordinary criminal offenses.
Yet only two decades ago it was possible to believe that no person would ever again be put to death under governmental sanction in this country. There was widespread revulsion against capital punishment, and many state and national legislators, as well as members of the judiciary, felt they could oppose the death penalty without placing their reputations or political careers in jeopardy. In fact, a ten-year moratorium on executions began in 1967, and the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, though it stopped short of banning capital punishment outright, seemed to promise that the barbarous business of state-sanctioned homicide might be behind us for good. It didn't turn out that way.
I've spent much of my reading time this past year trying to understand how and why the United States turned back the clock on capital punishment. My interest was kindled by Marshall Frady's justly famous article in The New Yorker about Ricky Ray Rector, a young, severely mentally disabled African-American who was executed in Arkansas on January 24, 1992, after the governor of that state (who happened to be running for his party's Presidential nomination) conspicuously refused to intervene to save Rector's life. How did it happen, I wondered, that Bill Clinton actually scored political...